Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Servant Who Strives for Us

[Below you'll find the text of the message for this morning's worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, along with video of both the traditional and modern worship services.]

Isaiah 49:1-7

Ancient Israel failed. The descendants of Abraham and of Abraham’s grandson Jacob were given a mission by God. “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing,” God had told Abraham. (Genesis 12:2) Through Moses, He told Israel, “For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16) And the psalmist led worshipers in singing of God’s mission for ancient Israel: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us—so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” (Psalm 67:1-2)

Israel was to be a people saved, justified, declared innocent of sin, and thereby freed of the penalty of death, by God’s grace through faith in God and His promises. And Israel was to be a people who shared with all nations the good news of God’s grace for all who repent and believe in Him.

But Israel failed completely in its mission. Instead of putting its faith in the living God, Israel worshiped idols. Ancient Israel trusted in wealth, power, and status. Idolatry led, as it always does, to injustice. The people of Israel failed to love God with their whole hearts and failed to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. God repeatedly sent prophets to call the people to repentance and faith. Israel kept on as if God didn’t exist. So God allowed unrepentant ancient Israel to be conquered by foreign nations. Eventually, ancient Israel ceased to exist.

Despite the heartbreak of Israel’s faithfulness though, God hasn’t given up on saving the world–Jews or Gentiles–from sin, death, and eternal separation from Him. He still stands by the promise He made to the serpent, the devil, back in the garden of Eden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

You remember how Israel got its name. One night, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, wrestled with God. In the end, God gave Jacob the name, Israel. It means both Strives with God and God strives. The promises of God for the human race settled on Israel, Jacob, a sinner made a saint by grace through faith in God. Like you and me maybe, Jacob was always careening between striving against God and trusting God to strive for him. Jacob’s descendants were also called Israel. Eventually, they quit trusting in God to strive for them or to give them His promises.

Our first lesson for this morning, Isaiah 49:1-7, written about eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, shows us that God took the name of ancient Israel away from the descendants of Abraham. Instead, the true Israel, the One Who strives to bring the forgiveness of sins, the justification of sinners, and eternal life to all nations and peoples, is one man, a single Servant of God. Isaiah’s book has four passages known as Servant Songs, in which God points to this new Israel. The first of these songs comes in Isaiah 42, which begins, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1) Centuries later, God the Father would signal that His Servant had come into the world. At the Jordan River, he would say of Jesus: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17)

The Servant Jesus speaks to us in today’s lesson from Isaiah: “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’”

Here, before His birth at Bethlehem, Jesus says that though He is God, He would be born to a woman. God the Father would make Jesus’ words like a sharpened sword, able to pierce all our pretense and pomposity, to cut away the sin that kills and give us life in His name. Jesus goes on to say that the “splendor,” or the power, majesty, and holiness of God is on full display in Himself. That, of course, turned out to be true. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John who knew Him would say of Jesus, “but the one and only Son, who is himself God…has made Him known.” (John 1:18)

But it isn’t by the power of His deity that Jesus does His saving work for us. To give us His salvation, Jesus had to bear our sins, suffer rejection, and go through death. He had to experience the same sense of futility and forgottenness we go through in our own lives. Jesus could only save us by immersing Himself in the depths of our sin, forsakenness, and death in order to pull us out of chaos and deliver us into the hands of our loving Father! Last week, feeling overwhelmed by bad news in the midst of good news, looking too much at the world and too little at Jesus, I asked Ann, “Do you think I’ve actually accomplished anything worthwhile in my life?” Have you been there? The truth is that we are all, in our own power and reason, like ancient Israel: failures. Friends, God understands. Jesus says in today’s Servant Song: “...I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.” This is what Jesus felt on the cross. There He died for us, a Savior hated, despised, and defeated, crying out, “​​My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

But Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father and to us was not in vain! Because of the crucified and risen Jesus, the once-rejected, now vindicated Jesus, sin, death, and failure are the last words over the life of His Servant, or over the lives of those who trust in Him. Not the last words over your lives, friends! That’s why Jesus says to us today, “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” (Isaiah 49:4b) Jesus led the perfect life and offered it for your forgiveness! He died the death we deserve to give us the life with God we don’t deserve. Jesus is the light to all nations Israel never was and, without Him living in us, we never can be. Jesus succeeds where ancient Israel failed. Jesus succeeds where we fail, then hands the eternal benefits of His righteousness over to us as a free gift! This is why the apostle Paul says that God the Father gave Jesus, “the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9)

And so, after the Servant Jesus speaks in today’s first lesson, God the Father tells Jesus: “It is too small a thing [the original Hebrew carries the meaning of “too trifling a thing”] for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. [Jesus, in other words, wasn’t just going to save those in Israel who trusted in Him. The Father says:] I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Jesus triumphs where we fail and then graciously offers to share His victory over sin and death with all who turn to Him in repentant faith! God the Father says of Jesus in our lesson: “To him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: ‘Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49;7) John the Baptizer was right then when he said of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!.” (John 1:29)

Jesus died to set you free from sin and set you free to live in God’s loving embrace. The Servant has finished the work long ago foretold by the prophets. You are free from condemnation for all the ways you (and I) fall short, whether by worshiping ourselves or the things of the world, failing to honor parents or those in authority, murdering or committing adultery by thought, word, or deed, stealing, coveting, lying, or gossiping. 

Jesus, the Servant, has set us free from death, free from the unkind or indifferent condemnation that may come to you from a fallen world. Free of condemnation for both our self-congratulation and our self-reproach. We are free to live in the approval of God available to us only in Christ. Jesus’ words are still true: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18) 

Friends, repent and trust in Jesus the Servant each day and live in the freedom He has won for you, now and eternally. Amen